DOT abandoning Coastal Connector toll road that upset Marion County horse farmers

One of many protest signs around horse country in Ocala where several proposed routes of the Coastal Connector highway proposal would have sliced up farms. (JIM DAMASKE   |   Times)
One of many protest signs around horse country in Ocala where several proposed routes of the Coastal Connector highway proposal would have sliced up farms. (JIM DAMASKE | Times)
Published August 31 2018

The Florida Department of Transportation announced Friday that it has decided to kill off a controversial toll road called the Coastal Connector that had Marion County horse farmers and others in that region in an uproar.

"At this time, the department has determined that the best approach to addressing traffic issues in the area is to abandon the new corridor concepts that were preliminarily discussed in the planning studies," DOT secretary Mike Dew wrote in a letter to Marion County Commission Chairwoman Kathy Bryant.

The highway was proposed to link Interstate 75 to the Suncoast 2, or the planned extension of the Suncoast Parkway. Instead, Dew said his agency will "step back and focus on improvements to I-75."

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Marion County’s horse farm owners say ‘Whoa!’ to proposed toll road.

In June, after controversy erupted over the routes proposed for the highway, Dew had said the DOT would merely postpone work on the Coastal Connector. Abandoning it is a far more radical step, and an unusual one for the department that under Gov. Rick Scott has focused on building or expanding more toll roads than regular ones.

Scott spokesman John Tupps declined late Friday to comment on the DOT’s decision.

"We will let the secretary’s letter speak for itself," Tupps said. DOT officials also declined to comment further.

An organization representing the horse farmers, known as Horse Farms Forever, said in a news release that its members were "elated" to hear about the Dew letter.

The Coastal Connector controversy grew out of a desire to alleviate traffic on perpetually clogged I-75 through Central Florida.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE:Whoa! State postpones controversial toll road through horse farms.

Two years ago a committee of local leaders the DOT set up to study routes for a new highway through rural areas of Marion, Levy and Alachua counties to divert cars and trucks from I-75 recommended against building any of them. The committee recommended the DOT focus on fixing I-75 first — the solution that Dew’s letter says the agency will now pursue.

Instead of following the committee’s recommendation when it was first made, the agency unveiled several proposed routes for a new toll road it called the Coastal Connector. Maps showed that the routes would slice through an area around Ocala known as the "Horse Capital of the World," home to Florida’s $2.6 billion equine industry. It has produced two of horse racing’s Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Affirmed.

"When the Coastal Connector was announced … we all woke up and were shocked to learn the FDOT had planned a toll road right through the heart of Marion’s horse community," Bernard Little, who with his wife owns a 550-acre farm called Horsefeathers, said in June. "It would devastate the equine industry."

The owners of stables and breeding farms in that area banded together to fight it, drawing support from local and state officials, including Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.

Both the Marion County Commission and the Citrus County Commission passed resolutions calling for the FDOT to say whoa. Marion officials said they didn’t even want the state agency to continue studying any of the routes through that region, much less begin construction.

The opponents of the Coastal Connector also included people who opposed the extension of the lightly used $507-million Suncoast Parkway known as the Suncoast 2. The toll road extension, expected to cost $134-million, is now being built through the Withlacoochee State Forest, although regional planners say it is unlikely to attract much traffic unless it is somehow linked to I-75 through something like the Coastal Connector.

Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.